Bench Memos

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Obama to D.C. kids: No hope for you!


A few days ago, when Sen. Barack Obama sketched his (flawed) proposal for a scaled-back version of President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, he suggested an understanding of the First Amendment’s no-establishment rule that, while imperfect (he seems to believe, for example, that the Constitution requires religious institutions to give up their right to hire-for-mission if they participate in publicly funded social-welfare programs), represents a welcome improvement upon the strict, no-aid-separationist thinking that, for too long, undermined reasonable efforts of governments to support the good work – the eminently public work – of parochial and religious schools. Indeed, the speech could have been taken as providing further support for the theory, even the hope, that Sen. Obama does not share the knee-jerk hostility to school-choice that so animates many of the most powerful interests in the Democratic coalition. After all, in February, Obama had hinted, tantalizingly, that he was open to voucher-experiments.

Not so fast! Even his much remarked “move to the center” has limits. The teacher-unions can rest easy. Sen. Obama has now made it clear, in a recent speech to the American Federation of Teachers, that he opposes school choice. Trotting out the old canard about “draining resources from the public schools” – as if the problem in America’s failing public schools is a shortage of funds – he dismissed as “tired rhetoric” the powerful, hopeful advocacy of those who have struggled to bring educational opportunities to low-income children, competition to public education, and religious freedom to all. Even the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which enjoys bipartisan support – particularly from African-Americans in the District, who are paying the price for the Democrats’ willingness to pander – has lost Obama’s support. The “Audacity of Hope”? Try “The Unbearable Sameness of Disappointment.”

School choice, properly understood and designed, is a matter of simple justice. One might have expected that Sen. Obama would appreciate this, and that a candidate who is willing to buck the base on the death penalty and gun ownership might also be willing to let low-income kids in the District of Columbia benefit from the options that middle-class people in the suburbs take for granted. No such luck.


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